By Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group plans to recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis, setting the first goal for a major drawdown of U.S. forces, sources familiar with the proposal said yesterday.
The commission plan would shift the U.S. mission in Iraq to a secondary role as the fragile Baghdad government and its security forces take the lead in fighting a Sunni insurgency and trying to halt sectarian violence. As part of major changes in the U.S. presence, sources said, the plan recommends embedding U.S. soldiers directly in Iraqi security units starting as early as next month to improve leadership and effectiveness.
The call to pull out combat brigades by early 2008 would be more a conditional goal than a firm timetable, predicated on the assumption that circumstances on the ground would permit it, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the commission's report will not be released until next week. But panel members concluded that it is vital to set a target to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to do more to assume responsibility for the security of their country.
"It's really about transitioning from a combat to a support role, and basically making very clear that this is no longer an open-ended commitment and we're going to get this done whether the Iraqis like it or not," said one of the sources. "Everybody understands that we're at the end of the road here."
The choice of early 2008 as a goal could also, intentionally or not, change the nature of the debate over the war at the height of the U.S. presidential primary season. If the commission's plan is successful, the war might recede as an issue, as many strategists in both parties hope. But if U.S. commanders do not meet that goal, or if they do but violence only escalates, it may inflame the struggles for both parties' nominations.
Democrats, who captured control of both houses of Congress in last month's midterm elections, and some Republicans have pushed strongly for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. But President Bush has firmly resisted such demands, warning that it would amount to surrender and could destabilize Iraq even further.
At a news conference yesterday after a summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, Bush seemed to douse the idea of withdrawal in response to news reports about the Iraqi Study Group's recommendations. "This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever," Bush said.
But aides later cautioned against interpreting that as opposition to any change in the U.S. troop posture. "That's not the case," said one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "His position is he's not entering this process with defeat on his mind" for the sole purpose of getting out, the official said.